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Virtual diplomacy – a new way of conducting international affairs?

Radu Cucos's picture

The international community has been witnessing a drastic reduction in the diplomatic representation of governments and international organizations around the world. Strong international actors, such as Germany, France or the United Kingdom, as well as countries with less “firepower” on the global stage, have been closing down embassies, consulates and other types of foreign representations for various reasons. In light of this trend, virtual diplomacy has emerged as a possible alternative to the regular way of doing diplomatic business. The extent to which IT can help governments achieve their foreign policy objectives will therefore be a topic receiving more and more attention in the near future.

Although diplomats usually have diplomatic immunity, the diplomatic community was not immune from the effects of the economic recession. Great Britain decided to share embassies with Canada because of the austerity measures. Romania closed fourteen embassies in Africa and South America. The Philippine government recently terminated the operation of its embassies and consulates in Caracas, Koror, Dublin, Barcelona and Frankfurt. Greece has stopped the operations of six embassies and three consulates around the world as part of sweeping cuts. And these are just a few examples.

The volatile situation in the Middle East is another major factor that has led to shifts in the diplomatic and consular presence of certain countries. The French government announced that it will temporarily shut down premises, including embassies and schools, in 20 countries. Germany closed its embassies in many Middle Eastern countries on Friday, September 21, 2012.  The US, Canada, Israel and most of the EU countries have terminated the operations of their missions in Iran.

Although closing down embassies and consulates reduces costs, such cutbacks can harm international cooperation in many ways.  Diplomatic missions play an important role in promoting economic and trade ties and people-to-people contact. Public diplomacy is critical in strengthening cultural and educational exchanges. Thus, when deciding to close down missions around the world, governments have to find other mechanisms to be able to continue and even further develop international cooperation.

One of the best examples of IT replacing some aspects of the traditional diplomacy is the Virtual Embassy of the United States to Teheran, Iran. It is a website that was developed by the US State Department after the closure of the US Embassy in Tehran. The Virtual US Embassy is no different than any other US embassy website. The significance of this project is that it opens up a new diplomatic space – the virtual one. For the first time in diplomatic history, a country is using the Internet to establish a virtual presence in a particular part of the world. The concept of a “virtual embassy” has great potential and that such an online presence can serve as much more than a source of information about politics, economy, trade or cultural affairs between countries. A virtual embassy can serve as a platform to provide e-services to people from the sending and receiving states. This innovative approach inevitably does not have the full functionality of a traditional embassy or consulate but it is the next best thing when such an embassy or consulate does not exist.

The development of social media tools has changed the way diplomats interact with people, communities, non-governmental organizations and even foreign governments. Diplomats have quickly understood that Facebook, Twitter and other similar social media tools provide an opportunity to spread important information in a very fast manner and at almost no cost. The rise of social media has basically opened a new area for competition on the international stage. Foreign services are now competing for virtual influence on top of geopolitical influence, and one can imagine a scenario where virtual supremacy could someday be more important than geopolitical supremacy.  Social media has diplomatic clients all over the world and on all continents. It is not only the US State Department, the UK Foreign Office, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and other foreign services of first-world countries which are present and active on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, diplomatic institutions from countries such as Nigeria, Egypt, Afghanistan, Moldova or Belarus are also trying to promote their diplomatic interest in the virtual space.

“Open data” is another IT-related emerging concept that is currently at the top of the diplomatic agendas of an increasing number of countries. First developed as a tool for transparency and the reuse of public information, open data quickly has become an instrument for international cooperation. As a result of diplomatic efforts, including those of US President Barack Obama, the Open Government Partnership was created as a cooperation platform between states. As of today, 57 countries have committed themselves to the principles of the Open Government Partnership. One of the greatest values of the Open Government Partnership is that it can bring together countries with different political and economic perspectives to the same table, including Georgia and Russia, which currently have strained political relations.

The World Bank is a major stakeholder that contributes to promoting open data initiatives around the world. The Bank has established the Open Development Technology Alliance as a platform for knowledge sharing, expertise and capacity building for countries aspiring to use open data for accountability and improving the delivery and quality of public services. More importantly, the World Bank has mainstreamed the open data concept in its projects. The Moldova Governance e-Transformation project is the Bank’s first project with a separate component dedicated to the development of open data institutional, legal and operational frameworks. In the framework of the project, the Moldovan government has published around 445 data sets from 32 ministries, with a total of almost 66 thousand downloads since March 2011. Moldovan citizens can easily access data on crime rates, public expenditures, road accidents, disaster relief, infrastructure, school locations, water quality and other critical information needed for daily life. Open data is a win - win option. For governments, it creates transparency and economic opportunities, and for citizens, it is an empowering tool with which they can hold their policymakers accountable.

E-services have been increasingly permeating the diplomatic environment by leaps and bounds for quite some time. Good examples of e-consular services are the ones developed by the foreign services of Turkey, Poland, Australia or the US. Under the World Bank e-Transformation project, the Moldovan government is developing an electronic visa service. This e-service will make it easier for foreign citizens to obtain a visa to Moldova without the need to travel to an embassy or consulate and wait in line in order to submit their visa application.

Implementation of virtual diplomacy has its risks. Data protection and security, infrastructure set-up and institutional frameworks are issues countries should think about very carefully. The international diplomatic community has already had a negative experience with the leaking of US State Department cables, which endangered the cooperation between different international players. Nevertheless, modern technology offers possibilities which could mitigate the risks.

It is clear that forward – looking professionals and institutions involved in international relations and diplomacy are experimenting with new forms of cooperation. Virtual diplomacy is being embraced in different forms, by an increasing number of countries and international organizations and it is gaining more and more ground with respect to traditional diplomacy. Obviously, we should not expect virtual diplomacy to totally replace traditional diplomacy. Mutual trust, which is probably the most important concept in international cooperation, can be built only by personal interaction. Nevertheless, it’s without any doubt that virtual and traditional diplomacy could be compliment goods, economically speaking.

IT enabled diplomacy provides great opportunities for countries, especially the ones in transition. By using innovative ICT tools such as social media, e-services and open data platforms, foreign services can leapfrog and play a greater role on the international stage and thus enabling smaller countries to “punch above their weight” and earn a space at the same table with other strong international stakeholders. One need only look at the example of Estonia, a small, former USSR country, which has earned particular international recognition for its remarkable e-government achievements.

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